- With one win in Cleveland, the Warriors can make separate, definitive claims as the greatest regular season and postseason team.
CLEVELAND — The Warriors find themselves in the odd position of playing a closeout game in the NBA Finals with great historical significance and little contextual meaning. If Golden State were to lose on Friday night for the first time all postseason, they would still have three more chances to wrap up a series that seems all but finished. If they were to win Game 4, however, this Warriors team would shine with distinction as the one team in league history to sweep through 16 playoff games unbeaten.
Cultural memory puts those sorts of teams—the ones that aren’t only great, but unprecedented—into their own space. One more win is all that separates Golden State from definitive, independent claims on both the greatest regular season and greatest playoff runs of all time.
“It would be a great piece of history,” Klay Thompson said. “It wasn't a goal of ours to start the postseason, but now that's it's attainable, we have our eyes set on it and all we have to do is come out with great focus and play as hard as we can and we should be in a position to win.”
This sort of historic potential cannot help but overwhelm everything around it. This juncture of a typical playoff series is usually one of great tactical importance. It’s around Game 4 that the dynamics of a series take shape. Both teams have felt out the other’s approach, made adjustments, and distilled their rotation down to its most relevant parts. In this case, so much of the game-to-game nuance has been drowned out by Golden State’s incredible talent. We’ve reached a point where LeBron James can play Cleveland into a seven-point advantage through 46 minutes and still lose. James and Irving can combine for 77 points between them and it isn’t enough.
“We felt like Game 3 was do or die,” Kevin Love said. The Cavaliers died that night; where a 2–1 series might at least be contestable, a 3-0 series is essentially beyond reach. The problem isn’t only that no team has ever survived going down in a series three game to none (history, clearly, doesn’t apply much to these Cavs) but that no one seems capable of beating the Warriors at all. Cleveland has improved in these Finals by the game and still Golden State finds its way—if not through blowouts then through painful, crunch-time extraction.
To go 16–0 in the playoffs is the sort of record that isn’t often considered, largely for how impossible it seems. There were whispers after the Warriors rushed their way past the Blazers and Jazz, looking dominant and fully healthy. When Kawhi Leonard was forced to leave Game 1 of the Western Conference finals due to an ankle injury, the possibility snapped into focus. Even then, the consensus in prediction for these Finals gave the Cavs a game or two; the thought that a LeBron-led team with this much talent and experience would be ushered out without so much as a momentary victory seemed too remote. The Warriors made it a plausible reality. All that’s left is to punch through one more win—a step that Golden State’s players and coaches themselves refuse to look past.
“You don't want to be a team you measure against to say, who is the best team to never win it,” Andre Iguodala said. “So until the job's completed, [history] is not even a thought.” From the outside looking in, it should at least be considered. To go 16–0 rather than 16–1 wouldn’t actually say much meaningful about the quality of this team, but it would—intentional or not—send a powerful message.
“People can talk about it in historical context, but you just get it done, win the series and let everybody else talk,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. Fans will debate the merits of a potential clean sweep. Media members will do their best to contextualize its meaning. But the ‘talk’ that Kerr mentions would quake throughout the NBA world as well—through front offices and coaches meetings and draft war rooms.
Teams around the league are already wary of a juggernaut this powerful with so many of its best players still easing into their prime. A perfect postseason might send some others over the edge. Golden State is dominant enough to make other franchises redraw their plans completely. Timelines will be shifted. Contract offers will be second-guessed. Those franchises with the flexibility to wait will take their time as they cobble together pieces, every season hoping that next year’s Warriors might grow too expensive or run into some other unforeseen problem.
This perpetual strength of Golden State is understood whether they go 16–0 or not. Yet the possibility that neither the Blazers nor the Jazz nor the Spurs nor the defending champion Cavs could even take a game against the Warriors crystallizes that message in a powerful way. Forget the prestige that had previously come from putting up an honest fight in the playoffs against the eventual champs. Don’t even think about the gate intake from a potential Game 6 back at home. On Friday night, Golden State could quash not only other franchises’ dreams of contention, but their hopes for even competing.